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Sand Dredging: Lough Neagh

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Bronwyn McGahan Bronwyn McGahan Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 13th October 2015

5. Ms McGahan asked the Minister of the Environment how he plans to address ongoing sand dredging in Lough Neagh. (AQO 8856/11-16)

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Due to a recently instigated legal challenge in relation to the Department's ongoing enforcement case, I am limited in what I can say on these matters. By way of background, when the situation was brought to my attention, I instructed officials to seek a voluntary cessation of operations and to investigate and monitor any ongoing activity on the lough. Warning letters were sent to operators on 25 September 2014, advising that the unauthorised dredging activity constituted a breach of planning control and should:

"cease until this situation has been addressed".

On 27 May 2015, enforcement notices were issued to all relevant parties and were to take effect on 30 June 2015 unless appealed to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). The Shaftesbury estate appealed the enforcement notices on 24 June, and the five sand operators lodged appeals with the PAC on 26 June. No parties have appealed the environmental impact assessment (EIA) determination. The enforcement notices have ceased to have effect, pending the PAC's determination of the appeal.

The grounds specified in the appeal have also had the effect of passing statutory responsibility from the Department to the PAC for determining whether planning permission should be granted for the sand extraction activities concerned. The PAC, in considering its decision in the matter, will consider, inter alia, an environmental statement to be prepared by the appellants. Thus, responsibility for determining the status of enforcement action and whether planning approval should be granted for the sand-dredging activities concerned has passed to the jurisdiction of the PAC.

I am acutely aware that this is a complex issue involving important environmental and socio-economic considerations. In order to respect both the judicial process and the independent appeals process, including the rights of the parties involved, I do not intend to comment further on these issues, pending the outcome of the procedures.

Photo of Bronwyn McGahan Bronwyn McGahan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response, and I appreciate that there is a legal case. Considering the recent concerns expressed by the fishermen who work on the lough, when does the Minister expect the case to conclude?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her supplementary. I am aware of the concerns of the fishermen on the lough and the impact that this is having and has been having on their livelihood for some time. However, given that jurisdiction has now passed to the PAC, I could not even hazard a guess as to how long it will take. It is now the subject of a judicial review. Legal action has been brought by a third party who would like stop notices to be issued, which would, I suppose, satisfy the fishermen to some extent. That is currently the subject of a legal process.

The PAC has also received a request from the appellants to extend the time granted to them to submit environmental information until October 2016. I know that that has raised eyebrows and hackles in some quarters as well.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra ar an ábhar seo. I thank the Minister for his response to this question. Does he acknowledge that sand extraction on Lough Neagh directly supports 150 jobs and up to 500 jobs indirectly in the asphalt, concrete and precast sectors?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr McGlone for that question. As I said in my response to the original question, I am acutely aware that this is a very complex issue involving a lot of extremely important environmental and socio-economic considerations. Industry estimates of the number of people directly employed in the working of materials from Lough Neagh vary from between 150 persons to 200 persons. Mr McGlone gave a more conservative figure, but I have heard that up to 1,000 people are indirectly involved or employed in the supply chain. As I said, a legal challenge has been initiated against my Department, and I am not able to comment further at this stage.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

As the Minister outlined, he issued warning letters, but unauthorised sand dredging continued; he then issued an enforcement notice, but unauthorised sand dredging continued. Will he now issue a stop notice to make sure that unauthorised sand dredging cannot continue?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that question. I gratefully accept his acknowledgement of the attempts that I have made in this regard. When the matter was first brought to my attention, I instructed officials to seek a voluntary cessation and to investigate and monitor ongoing activity on the lough. The warning letters were sent out over a year ago now, advising that the unauthorised activity constituted a breach of planning control.

Between that stage and issuing the enforcement notices, we had to go through a lengthy process of gathering sufficient evidence that work was ongoing. We had plenty of anecdotal evidence, but it had to be evidence that we thought was robust enough on which to defend an enforcement action. We now find ourselves having to defend that enforcement action. As regards the failure, as Mr Agnew might describe it, to serve a stop notice along with, or now subsequent to, the enforcement notice, given the legal challenge that has been initiated, I cannot comment further on that.